Polls show that the Alberta election is close. There is a real possibility that the NDP might unseat the governing United Conservative Party (UCP) and spend the next four years implementing their agenda with a majority mandate. I teach Grade Two in Calgary, so I have been paying close attention to the education record and policies of both parties. This series of essays seeks to draw attention to some concerns.
I first noted the NDP’s forceful, misguided opposition to a normal school reopening in September 2020, which history has shown to be a mistake. Thank goodness the UCP government followed the science and reopened schools as soon as the evidence showed it was safe to do so. Hopefully, we won’t have to deal with another pandemic anytime soon, so the NDP’s bad judgement on school reopening may not affect Albertan kids’ futures. But other concerns remain.
Notably, if elected, the NDP might make the historic mistake of undermining school choice and parents’ rights as the first educators of their children. These foundational principles of our education system protect kids’ well-being and promote student learning.
School choice and parents’ rights matter because parents almost always know their kids better than school systems do. I speak from experience. In my eight years of classroom teaching, I’ve learned that I while I deeply care about my students and want to do what’s best for them, I’m not able to do that as well as their parents are.
It’s common sense.
Each of my students is one of 24, or 26, or 28 others, depending on the year. I get to know them very well for one year, in the particular setting of a school, and then they move on to another teacher. Parents, on the other hand, have known their kids longer, in more settings, and will be their kids’ parents for the rest of their lives. If a teacher doesn’t know his students as well as their parents do, then what’s the likelihood that an administrator in the office or downtown at the school division headquarters does?
In my view, parents delegate their role as educators of their children to a school and its teachers. This delegation makes sense because there are many technical teaching skills that not every parent can develop or implement on their own, including everything from phonemic awareness and phonics instruction in the primary grades to advanced calculus at the end of high school. That’s why parents rely on professional teachers and well-run schools to support them while still expecting teachers to consult them when it comes to major issues in their kids’ development.
The implications of this delegation-based view are clear. When it comes to the big decisions – where should my children go to school? What type of school should they go to? What should they be taught about intensely personal subjects? How should they be supported in their social-emotional development?
Parents should be driving the decisions.
The Alberta education system puts this principle into practice through its school choice model. In addition to traditional public schools, parents can choose to send their children to constitutionally-guaranteed Francophone and Catholic schools without having to pay tuition. They can also send their children to a variety of independent schools whose tuition is kept very low through partial funding from Alberta Education. Increasingly, parents also have the choice to send their children to charter schools, which are tuition-free non-profit public schools that feature open enrollment and a distinct approach to learning but are governed outside the bureaucratic strictures of local school divisions.
The result of this school policy is that parents are supported in finding schools that are the right fit for their children. It’s a far better system than being stuck without choice or a voice in the school assigned to you based on your postal code.
This is where my concern about the NDP comes in.
Many of the party’s candidates have expressed skepticism about school choice and called for a one-system-fits-all approach to education, opposing Catholic schools, independent schools, and charter schools. In the last term, NDP caucus members voted against the UCP government’s Choice in Education Act, arguing it should be more difficult to establish new charter schools and that we should not enshrine the principle of school choice in law.
Moreover, their traditional supporters in the teacher’s union and the progressive lobby group Support Our Students have long campaigned for less school choice in Alberta. One wonders what kind of influence these groups will have in an NDP government, and how it could affect Alberta’s school choice landscape in the future.
In fairness to the NDP, their leader Rachel Notley has said that she does not plan to defund Catholic, independent, or charter schools, but instead just wants to focus new support to traditional public schools. This reluctant support of school choice reflects the success of the current model: charter schools, independent schools, Francophone schools, and Catholic schools all boost Alberta’s overall academic performance. It also reflects the success of the parents’ rights and school choice movement in our province. There is a voting constituency that has a real stake in the future of school choice, and the NDP risks their support if they are perceived as too opposed to it.
If elected, it’s more likely that an NDP government would seek to undermine the schools of choice already in place while making it harder to establish any new ones.
Here’s an example: several new charter schools were established in recent years, in part because the new Choice in Education Act lifted the cap on new charter schools and allowed them to apply for funding directly from the Ministry of Education. Previously, they had to apply to local school divisions, which are often reluctant to support alternative choices in their region and to rent out school sites that could otherwise be sold to private developers. Charter schools have benefited from administrative support and encouragement from the Ministry of Education in getting started and meeting the considerable demand for more choices.
Under the UCP, that support has been there. After all, philosophically, conservatives support parents’ rights and choice in education. Under the NDP, that support would likely be gone. Philosophically, they believe in more government control and their key supporters want a one-system-fits-all approach. Their commitment not to defund schools of choice is a reluctant one. It’s more a concession to electoral reality than a genuine commitment to school choice and parents’ rights.
One final example illustrates the concern I have about how the NDP thinks about parental rights in education. During their last term, the NDP brought in a series of measures to support Gay-Straight Alliances in schools. There’s been a lot of discussion of this issue and more heat than light has emerged from the media coverage. As a gay man myself, I want schools where teenagers feel safe and comfortable as they come to terms with their sexuality.
But I am concerned that some aspects of the NDP’s policies would encourage irresponsible teachers to drive a wedge between parents and their children. When last in government, the NDP sought to prohibit teachers from informing parents if their child was transitioning to a different gender identity at school. This worries me because in almost every case, teachers should not encourage kids to keep secrets from their parents. Most parents love their kids, know them best, and should be informed about issues in their lives.
In cases where abuse or potential for abuse is suspected, teachers should abide by their duty to report the issue to children’s services rather than encouraging kids to live double lives. Moreover, treating gender dysphoria in minors is complex. Teachers are not qualified in how best to support kids with this serious mental health condition. We should work to involve parents in the process of helping children who are grappling with these issues.
This is a common sense approach that reflects what most people want.
A recent poll showed that 57% of Canadians supported the idea that schools have a duty to report gender transitions to a child’s parents, with only 18% opposed. That the NDP went so far in the opposite direction when they were in government suggests to me that they truly do not understand the critical importance of parents’ rights in their kids’ educations.
In my view, school choice and parents’ rights as first educators of their children are important values that should be at the heart of our education system. These values help create and maintain quality schools, and they protect kids’ learning and overall well-being. In this election, voters should consider which party will uphold these values best as we continue building an education system worthy of our kids.